“Increasing awareness around legacy giving could provide an extra €160M for communities” – CEO Q&A with Denise Charlton of Community Foundation Ireland

By Business & Finance
04 January 2024
Pictured: Denise Charlton, CEO, Community Foundation Ireland

Denise Charlton is Chief Executive of Community Foundation Ireland, a philanthropic hub on a mission of Equality For All In Thriving Communities. Established with Government seed funding of €1M in 2000, the Foundation has, with the support of over 100 donors, converted this into €130M in grant-making to 5,000 voluntary, community and charitable organisations.

What are your main priorities and goals in your role?

Growing Irish Philanthropy to support a fairer, more equal society is central to the strategy of Community Foundation Ireland. We work with donors, supporters, and their professional advisors to drive positive change. Whether taking climate action, combatting child poverty, or confronting inequality we are often funding projects, campaigns and research which otherwise would not happen. The publication of the first National Policy on Philanthropy in December offers an opportunity to further increase that impact. That is a primary goal for 2024.  

What are your biggest challenges as CEO?

Increasing awareness of philanthropy as private giving for greater good remains a challenge. While we are seeing donations grow, Ireland is behind the UK, Europe and the US. We believe awareness raising aimed at Government and its agencies, potential donors and those who advise them as well as the wider public will address this.

How do you keep your team/ staff motivated?

A strategy setting out our role in providing expert advice, insights, research and grant-making, supporting strategic giving is central to everything we do. Additionally, the team has regular site visits to see first-hand how our equality mission is transforming lives. This is the biggest motivator of all.

What are the challenges facing the industry going forward?

Ensuring Government delivers on commitments in the National Policy on Philanthropy is a priority. We welcome many of them. A new cross-Government openness to partnering with philanthropy offers opportunities to address complex issues such as climate. Increasing awareness around legacy giving could provide an extra €160M for communities, without elaborate tax changes. While establishing pilot local funds could see private and public money working together to benefit a geographical area. Each of these could be activated in the short-term.

What new trends are emerging in your industry?

Our network of 5,000 voluntary, community and charitable organisations allows us to identify emerging challenges and responses needed. We saw this during the cost-of-living crisis, the impact of war in Ukraine as well as Covid-19. On each occasion our private donors and corporate supporters responded. We are also keenly aware of donor expectations and changing trends in that regard. The increased focus on locally based giving, a desire for new entrepreneurs to begin a philanthropic journey as well as an increasing need for assurances on governance, which our expertise offers, have been identified. 

Are there any major changes you would like to see in your sector?

The new openness by Government to use and promote philanthropy needs to be followed by action. Not just regarding the new National Policy but also the commitment made by Minister Michael McGrath in Budget 2024 to engage the sector. 

As an employer are you finding any skill gaps in the market?

We are, for many, an employer of choice. For that I am grateful. Despite this, a lack of awareness about philanthropy and the skills required is a challenge. We invest in our staff so that they can grow and develop in their careers with us.

How did your strategy develop in the context of the cost of living crisis?

The cost of living crisis is putting huge pressure on communities. In response, we draw on our robust strategy. For the second consecutive year our donations have surpassed €22M. In addition to meeting immediate need such as addressing hunger or homelessness, this also allows strategic work such as Ireland’s first Child Poverty Monitor and a partnership with the best experts in the country, the ESRI. Both placing child poverty top of the political agenda. 

How do you define success and what drives you to succeed?

Philanthropy is different. It is brave. It can take risks. It often takes a longer-term view. It is always strategic. Success is when working with donors and community partners we tick each of those boxes. 

What’s the best advice you’ve been given, or would give, in business?

Plan, plan and plan. Organisations with vision, strategy and mission are those which cope when the unexpected happens.

What have been your highlights in business over the past year?

Continuing a period of growth and delivering for communities. Working with donors and grantees, we have made an impact on so many issues. We are contributing to countering the climate and bio-diversity crisis, promoting the circular economy, and supporting the development of persuasive narrative to hold the Government and others to account in the climate space.  We have supported changes to laws and policy on gender and sexual-based violence, countering online abuse and keeping children and young people safe. We have partnered with organisations to support those fighting racism, homophobia, and polarisation.  We have contributed to challenging child poverty. We have worked with civil society across the Island, focussing on developing new services where there are gaps, commissioned research where new evidence is needed, supporting advocacy and policy development, on social issues that affect communities all over Ireland.  We have supported over 100 families, corporates, and trusts in their strategic giving.

Where do you want your organisation to be this time next year?

Impactful in supporting equality in communities all over Ireland. To keep our existing donors engaged and energised in their strategic giving. 

What is the best book you’ve ever read (non-business) and why?

Just finished The Persuaders – winning hearts and minds in a divided age by Anand Giridharadas. The book presents strategies used to bring people on a journey to change their mind, on a range of social issues. In an increasing polarised world, it is of great interest to read the various experiences. It highlights the need to listen and hearing where people are at, what is behind their beliefs and being ready to engage in real conversations to understand what informs and influence these views.  It seems like an important book in the context of protecting democratic rights.

What is your favourite hobby and why?

Hiking or Rowing. Whether solo or as a team-effort, being up a mountain or out in the waters of Dublin Bay is the ultimate ‘me-time’. off-the-water rowing classes are the ultimate switch-off and a great fitness challenge.  A regular sea swim keeps my head clear.

What is your mantra for life?

Live life to the full, have no regrets, fill each day and enjoy family and friends.


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